by Tony Dayoub
What is it like when you find out you've got less than a month to live? Is everything you see or hear a marker signifying the dwindling amount of time you have in the face of impending death? According to director Jean-Marc Vallée's Dallas Buyers Club it just might be. The Canadian director's last film, Café de Flore, displayed a penchant for magical realism even in the context of profound grief, perhaps overly so. But Dallas Buyers Club tempers Vallée's predilection for the whimsical while still allowing him to indulge in some not inappropriate lyricism. Small details like the perfectly timed but tangential Billy "Crash" Craddock lyric "...he loves her so much he wants to die..." playing on a car radio or a bright, bold "30" on a blank calendar after doctors inform shitkickin' electrician Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) of his terminal condition bolster the story of this irreverent antihero, on a quixotic quest to extend the lives of those afflicted with HIV/AIDS, including his own. But it's the sober, strong performances by McConaughey and costar Jared Leto that keep Dallas Buyers Club firmly anchored in reality.
Leto plays transgender junkie Rayon, an only seemingly mismatched foil for the homophobic Woodroof. Together, however, Woodroof and Rayon form one of the most dynamic street couples to grace cinema since Midnight Cowboy. The role of lanky, desiccated Woodroof, a rodeo hand who lives hard and parties harder, is the culmination of a past couple of years in which McConaughey has been reminding everyone of the early days of his career, when he was often compared to a young Method-y Paul Newman before he got derailed by a series of vapid comedies. Hateful of anything remotely queer, Woodroof is mystified as to how he might have contracted HIV. This is 1985, as headlines of Rock Hudson's coming out remind us, when catching HIV not only meant a death sentence but automatically being labelled homosexual as well. Never one to accept any pronouncements from those in authority, Woodroof's diagnosis turns out to be the beginning of his odyssey, not the end. And his nearly impossible arc from homophobia to tolerance is initiated by his chance meeting with Rayon at a hospital where both are undergoing treatment.
Familiarity breeds sympathy in this case as Woodroof grows to appreciate Rayon's talent for attracting needy customers willing to buy in to the club they establish as a cover for delivering much needed but unapproved drugs smuggled in over the border from Mexico. Leto's humanity rises above what might have been some stereotypical scenes, from their first "meet cute" in the hospital, where Rayon kneads a dehydrated Woodroof's cramping calf muscle to a touching supermarket scene in which the cowboy asserts his alpha-dog status over a homophobic ex-coworker who chastised him by forcing him to acknowledge and even shake hands with his sensitive business partner. Far closer to the end stages of the disease than Woodroof, Rayon's vulnerability when he relapses into his drug habit or confesses fear of death reminds Woodroof and viewers that these characters are less the very specific types they appear to be and more of an example of regular folks facing a very frightening prospect.
Based on a true story Dallas Buyers Club occasionally hits some false notes, particularly in the lengths it goes to keep reminding us what a womanizer Woodroof is, or was before he became ill. Vallée tries to gin up some kind of platonic romance between Woodroof and empathetic physician Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner). One thing is portraying their relationship as collegial, as they are both essentially searching for the same thing, a way to bring comfort to those withering away because of AIDS instead of killing them by trying to bombard the virus with toxic levels of the then-experimental AZT in clinical trials. But a mid-movie dinner date, meant to add some poignancy to their relationship, is ill-fitting. This most especially because if there's a love story to be dug up here it is the one between the flamboyant Rayon and Woodroof.
Some might find it offensive that Dallas Buyers Club's frames the evolution of AIDS treatment through the perspective of a man who in life likely didn't evolve too much further from his distaste for homosexuals. But the nearly unrecognizable McConaughey and Leto are so genuinely compelling in their respective roles, both together and apart, that one can't help appreciate the movie's subject matter all the more. If Dallas Buyers Club is illuminating, stirring and accessible, it is in large part to their two potent performances.